Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895

Date: 1897

Show Summary

38.

THE POTLATCH OF THE KWAKIUTL INDIANS OF VANCOUVER ISLAND1

ByFRANZn/aBOASn/an/an/an/a

Before proceeding any further it will be necessary to describe the method of acquiring rank. This is done by means of the potlach, or the distribution of property. This custom has been described often, but it has been thoroughly misunderstood by most observers. The underlying principle is that of the interest-bearing investment of property.

The child when born is given the name of the place where it is born. This name it keeps until about a year old. Then his father, mother, or some other relative, gives a paddle or a mat to each member of the clan and the child receives his second name When the boy is about ten or twelve years old, he obtains his third name In order to obtain it he must distribute a number of small presents such as shirts or single blankets among his own clan or tribe. When the youth thus starts out in life he is liberally assisted by his elders, particularly by the nobility of the tribe.

I must say here that the unit of value is the single blanket, now-a-days a cheap white woolen blanket, which is valued at fifty cents. The double blanket is valued at three single blankets. These blankets form the means of exchange of the Indians, and everything is paid for in blankets or in objects the value of which is measured by blankets. When a native has to pay debts and has not a sufficient number of blankets, he borrows them from his friends and has to pay the following rates of interest:

For a period of a few months, for five borrowed blankets six must be returned ; for a period of six months, for five borrowed blankets seven must be returned ; for a period of twelve months or longer, for five borrowed blankets ten must be returned .

When a person has a poor credit, he may pawn his name for a year. Then the name must not be used during that period, and for thirty blankets which he has borrowed he must pay 100 in order to redeem his name. This is called ("selling a slave").

The rate of interest of the varies somewhat around 25 per cent., according to the kindness of the loaner and the credit of the borrower. For a very short time blankets may be loaned without interest. This is designated by the same term.

When the boy is about to take his third name, he will borrow blankets from the other members of the tribe, who all assist him. He must repay them after a year, or later, with 100 per cent. interest. Thus he may have gathered 100 blankets. In June, the time set for this act, the boy will distribute these blankets among his own tribe, giving proportionately to every member of the tribe, but a few more to the chief. This is called When after this time any member of the tribe distributes blankets, the boy receives treble the amount he has given. The people make it a point to repay him inside of a month. Thus he owns 300 blankets, of which, however, he must repay 200 after the lapse of a year. He loans the blankets out among his friends, and thus at the close of the year he may possess about 400 blankets.

The next June he pays his debts (quoana’) in a festival, at which all the clans from whom he borrowed blankets are present. The festival is generally held on the street or on an open place near the village. Up to this time he is not allowed to take part in feasts. But now he may distribute property in order to obtain a potlatch name This is also called

At this time the father gives up his seat in favor of his son. After the boy has paid his debts, the chief calls all the older members of the tribe to a council, in which it is resolved that the boy is to receive his father’s seat. The chief sends his speaker to call the boy, and his clan go out in company with the speaker. The young man—for henceforth he will be counted among the men—dresses with a black headband and paints long vertical stripes, one on each side of his face, running down from the outer corners of the eyes. The stripes represent tears. He gives a number of blankets to his friends who carry them into the house where the council is being held. The speaker enters first and announces his arrival. The young man follows and after him enter his friends, carrying blankets. He remains standing in front of the fire, and the chief announces to him that he is to take his father’s seat. Then the boy distributes his blankets among the other clans and sells some for food, with which a feast is prepared. His father gives up his seat and takes his place among the old men The blankets given away at this feast are repaid with 100 per cent. interest. In this manner the young man continues to loan and to distribute blankets and thus is able with due circumspection and foresight to amass a fortune. Sometimes it happens that the successor to a man’s name (Lawu’lqame) already has a name of his own. In all such cases (also when the name is acquired by inheritance) the successor gives up his name and his property to his own successor.

Possession of wealth is considered honorable, and it is the endeavor of each Indian to acquire a fortune. But it is not as much the possession of wealth as the ability to give great festivals which makes wealth a desirable object to the Indian. As the boy acquires his second name and a man’s estate by means of a distribution of property, which in course of time will revert to him with interest, the man’s name acquires greater weight in the councils of the tribe and greater renown among the whole people, as he is able to distribute more and more property at each subsequent festival. Therefore boys and men are vying with each other in the arrangement of great distributions of property. Boys of different clans are pitted against each other by their elders, and each is exhorted to do his utmost to outdo his rival. And as the boys strive against each other, so do the chiefs and the whole clans, and the one object of the Indian is to outdo his rival. Formerly feats of bravery counted as well as distributions of property, but nowadays, as the Indians say, "rivals fight with property only." . . .

I referred several times to the distribution of blankets. The recipient in such a distribution is not at liberty to refuse the gift, although according to what I have said it is nothing but an interest-bearing loan that must be refunded at some future time with 100 per cent. interest. This festival is called p’a’sa, literally, "flattening something" (for instance, a basket). This means that by the amount of property given the name of the rival is flattened.

There is still another method of rising in the social scale, namely, by showing one’s self superior to the rival. This may be done by inviting the rival and his clan or tribe to a festival and giving him a considerable number of blankets. He is compelled to accept these, but is not allowed to do so until after he has placed an equal number of blankets on top of the pile offered to him. This is called and the blankets placed on top of the first pile are called Then he receives the whole pile and becomes debtor to that amount, i.e., he must repay the gift with 100 per cent. interest.

A similar proceeding takes place when a canoe is given to a rival. The latter, when the gift is offered to him, must put blankets to the amount of half the value of the canoe onto it. This is called "taking hold of the bow of the canoe." These blankets are kept by the first owner of the canoe. Later on, the recipient of the canoe must return another canoe, together with an adequate number of blankets, as an "anchor line" for the canoe. This giving of a canoe is called

Still more complicated is the purchase or the gift, however one chooses to term it, of a "copper." All along the North Pacific Coast, from Yakutat to Comox, curiously shaped copper plates are in use, which in olden times were made of native copper, which is found in Alaska and probably also on Nass River, but which nowadays are worked out of imported copper. . . . These coppers have the same function which bank notes of high denominations have with us. The actual value of the piece of copper is small but it is made to represent a large number of blankets and can always be sold for blankets. The value is not arbitrarily set but depends upon the amount of property given away in the festival at which the copper is sold. On the whole, the oftener a copper is sold the higher its value, as every new buyer tries to invest more blankets in it. Therefore the purchase of a copper also brings distinction, because it proves that the buyer is able to bring together a vast amount of property.

Each copper has a name of its own, and from the following list of coppers, which were in Fort Rupert in 1893, the values attached to some of them may be seen:

("all other coppers are ashamed to look at it"), 7500 blankets.

("steel-head salmon," i.e., it glides out of one’s hands like a salmon), 6000 blankets.

("making the house empty of blankets"), 5000 blankets.

("about whose possession all are quarrelling").

("sea-lion").

("beaver face").

("looking below"; namely, in order to find blankets with which to buy it).

("moon"; its engraving represents the half-moon, in which a man is sitting).

("a spirit"; He’iltsuq dialect, corresponding to the Kwakiutl ).

("dry face").

("bear face").

("crow"; dialect).

Qoayî’m ("whale").

("killer whale").

("too great a whale").

("war," against the blankets of the purchaser).

The purchase of a high-priced copper is an elaborate ceremony, which must be described in detail. The trade is discussed and arranged long before hand. When the buyer is ready, he gives to the owner of the copper blankets about one-sixth of the total value of the copper. This is called "making a pillow" for the copper or "making a feather bed" (ta’lqoa) or "the harpoon line at which game is hanging" meaning that in the same manner the copper is attached to the long line of blankets; or "taken in the hand, in order to lift the copper The owner of the copper loans these blankets out and when he has called them in again, he repays the total amount received, with 100 per cent. interest, to the purchaser. On the following day the tribes assemble for the sale of the copper. The prescribed proceeding is as follows: The buyer offers first the lowest price at which the copper was sold. The owner declares that he is satisfied, but his friends demand by degrees higher and higher prices, according to all the previous sales of the copper. This is called Finally, the amount offered is deemed satisfactory. Then the owner asks for boxes to carry away the blankets. These are counted five pairs a box, and are also paid in blankets or other objects. After these have been paid, the owner of the copper calls his friends—members of his own tribe—to rise, and asks for a belt, which he values at several hundred blankets. While these are being brought, he and his tribe generally repair to their house, where they paint their faces and dress in new blankets. When they have finished, drums are beaten in the house, they all shout "hi!" and go out again, the speaker of the seller first. As soon as the latter has left the house he turns and calls his chief to come down, who goes back to where the sale is going on, followed by his tribe. They all stand in a row and the buyer puts down the blankets which were demanded as a belt, "to adorn the owner of the copper." This whole purchase is called "putting the copper under the name of the buyer" .

In this proceeding the blankets are placed in piles of moderate height, one pile close to the other, so that they occupy a considerable amount of space. In Fort Rupert there are two high posts on the beach bearing carved figures on top, between which the blankets are thus piled. They stand about forty steps apart.

On the following day all the blankets which have been paid for the copper must be distributed by the owner among his own tribe, paying to them his old debts first, and, if the amount is sufficient, giving new presents. This is called "doing a great thing"

Coppers are always sold to rivals, and often a man will offer his copper for sale to the rival tribe. If it is not accepted, it is an acknowledgment that nobody in the tribe has money enough to buy it, and the name of the tribe or clan would consequently lose in weight. Therefore, if a man is willing to accept the offer, all the members of the tribe must assist him in this undertaking with loans of blankets. Debts which are repaid in the were mostly contracted in this manner.

MARRIAGE

Marriage among the Kwakiutl must be considered a purchase, which is conducted on the same principles as the purchase of a copper. But the object bought is not only the woman, but also the right of membership in her clan for the future children of the couple. I explained before that many privileges of the clan descend only through marriage upon the son-in-law of the possessor, who, however, does not use them himself, but acquires them for the use of his successors. These privileges are, of course, not given as a present to the son-in-law, but he becomes entitled to them by paying a certain amount of property for his wife. The wife is given to him as a first installment of the return payment. The crest of the clan, its privileges, and a considerable amount of other property besides, are given later on, when the couple have children, and the rate of interest is the higher the greater the number of children. For one child, 200 per cent. of interest is paid; for two or more children, 300 per cent. After this payment the marriage is annulled, because the wife’s father has redeemed his daughter. If she continues to stay with her husband, she does so of her own free will ( "staying in the house for nothing"). In order to avoid this state of affairs, the husband often makes a new payment to his father-in-law in order to have a claim to his wife.

The law of descent through marriage is so rigid that methods have developed to prevent the extinction of a name when its bearer has no daughter. In such a case a man who desires to acquire the of the crest and the other privileges connected with the name performs a sham marriage with the son of the bearer of the name ( Newettee dialect: "taking hold of the foot"). The ceremony is performed in the same manner as a real marriage. In case the bearer of the name has no children at all, a sham marriage with part of his body is performed, with his right or left side, a leg or an arm, and the privileges are conveyed in the same manner as in the case of a real marriage.

It is not necessary that the crest and privileges should be acquired for the son of the person who married the girl, but they may be transferred to his successor, whoever that may happen to be.

1

Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options


Title: Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options


Title: Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895 in Source Book in Anthropology, ed. Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T. (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1920), Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P5V8BRYWWF8C4JZ.

MLA: . Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895, in Source Book in Anthropology, edited by Kroeber, Alfred L., 1876-1960, and Waterman, T. T., Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1920, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P5V8BRYWWF8C4JZ.

Harvard: , Report of the U. S. National Museum for 1895. cited in 1920, Source Book in Anthropology, ed. , University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=P5V8BRYWWF8C4JZ.